About Town

Sweet Streets

By Myron Willson

What you get when you design and construct safe alternatives to driving cars.

Cities along the Wasatch Front are growing and evolving. People are moving to the area as they discover the many benefits of our region, including livable and vibrant neighborhoods.

While the new neighbors bring new cultural experiences and exciting job opportunities, one downside to this growth is increased car traffic and busy streets, along with increased air pollution from vehicle emissions. The car traffic problem also impacts safety because our big blocks and wide streets accommodate freeway-sized roads and encourage folks to drive at unsafe speeds.

As much as we love the outdoor lifestyle that Utah provides, we are often forced to walk and recreate exclusively in the canyons and mountains outside of town because we’re afraid a simple walk or bike to the park might be fatal when crossing large collector streets or sharing roads without safe and protected bike lanes.

In addition, commuting by something other than a car can be unsafe or inconvenient. GREENbikes and e-scooters are great for the final mile after transit, but the streets and sidewalks are often unsafe or inadequate for anything other than cars.

That’s why we’ve decided to do something about it.

At the same time that streets are perilous for walking or biking, technology is supporting more sustainable transport with all sorts of e-riding options, including e-scooters and e-bikes. I know that in my neighborhood, the number of parents and others who were taking kids to school in freight e-bikes or headed to the grocery or home center for provisions was increasing tremendously. E-bike sales are up across the country and bike shop dealers report similar trends locally.

E-bikes negate the hills and allow folks to arrive at work without sweat, which, though second to safety, is one of the major barriers to more people cycling. If we are to take full advantage of the new technology, we are going to need safe routes to schools, parks, shopping and jobs.

Many Utah cities, counties and even the state Department of Transportation have lofty goals about supporting pedestrian and bicycle safety, transit equity and barrier-free design for all ability levels. Safe, multi-modal transportation is a goal in almost every master plan I’ve ever read.

Proposed changes to streets that accommodate multiple modes of transportation are often opposed by individuals who fear a reduction of street parking or reduced number of car-travel lanes. However, in most cases, the car capacity of streets is far beyond what is needed 90% of the time and can support the addition of new pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. If we don’t design and construct safe alternatives for cars, most people will continue to drive.

Designing solely for the automobile is also an equity issue. Many people who do not own a car rely on public transportation or walking and bicycles to get around. Kids under 16 and elderly folks are trapped at home along with those who would like the freedom to bike, walk or take the bus or light rail without worrying about getting hit by a car.

Those of us who would like to see safer streets and mobility choice need to learn from the air quality and environmental movements. Organizations such as Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, HEAL Utah, Utah Moms for Clean Air and many others are advocating for change to improve the quality of life here in Utah. Without their wide networks and committed individuals willing to comment at hearings or send letters and emails, politicians would have only the polluters, lobbyists and NIMBYs to guide their votes. Decision-makers need the larger public to advocate for positive change to help balance the short-term concerns of parking or faster streets.

Enter the Sweet Streets Initiative

Within that context, a few of us have come together under a belief that streets built for all users are essential to a more equitable, sustainable society that pollutes less and supports safer, more prosperous communities.

The idea of Sweet Streets is to enhance the design of streets and adjacent public spaces for all people in SLC and Utah. By accommodating all potential users, we will improve the environment, grow the economy, connect society and neighborhoods, and provide increased access and freedom of movement and assembly. We are a political advocacy group seeking to influence the planning, budgeting, implementation and operation of city streets and public spaces.

We know that individual advocacy groups are already working on areas such as bicycles and transit. We see the Sweet Streets Initiative as the missing piece that brings together and prioritizes mobility for pedestrians, transit riders, the disabled community, skateboarders, bicyclists and e-riders so people of all mobility levels can move about efficiently.

While cars are necessary for many individuals and families, mobility choice and personal safety need to be prioritized so that public streets can be shared.

Myron Willson has been commuting to work by walking, taking transit and biking for over 40 years. He is the former director of the Sustainability Office at the University of Utah and a founding member of Sweet Streets along with Luke Garrott and Taylor Anderson.

This article was originally published on May 2, 2020.